December 22, 2015 marks the first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Also known as the winter solstice, today will see the fewest daylight hours of any day year, just nine hours and fifteen minutes in New York. Although we’ve now entered the winter season and the days will gradually begin to lengthen, the year’s coldest temperatures are still a month or two away, as the Earth’s thermal mass continues to slowly cool, just as the asphalt streets of New York continue to radiate heat long after an August sunset.
According to the Farmer’s Almanac, “The word solstice comes from the Latin words for “sun” and “to stand still.” In the Northern Hemisphere, as summer advances to winter, the points on the horizon where the Sun rises and sets advance southward each day; the high point in the Sun’s daily path across the sky, which occurs at local noon, also moves southward each day. At the winter solstice, the Sun’s path has reached its southernmost position. The next day, the path will advance northward. However, a few days before and after the winter solstice, the change is so slight that the Sun’s path seems to stay the same, or stand still.”
The winter solstice has been a time of celebration since early agrarian societies. The final fall harvests had been brought in, and much livestock would be slaughtered to save on feed over the lean months, so this marked the last time to feast before the deprivations of deep winter set in. We are, thankfully, no longer so dependent on the season for substance, but celebrations continue on in many cultures around the world. In New York City, for example, one can attend the annual Paul Winter’s Winter Solstice Celebration, a performance of music and dance inspired by ancient solstice rituals, now in its 36th year.
Balmy though it may be, happy first day of winter!